Obama aide defends trial for suspect in Christmas Day attempt to bomb plane

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 4, 2010; A01

President Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser on Sunday defended the administration's decision to try in federal court the man charged with attempting to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day and indicated that he would be offered a plea agreement to persuade him to reveal what he knows about al-Qaeda operations in Yemen.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian charged with the failed attempt on the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight, was initially "talking to people who detained him" but now has a public defender and "doesn't have to," John O. Brennan said on "Fox News Sunday."

"We have different ways of obtaining information from individuals" in the criminal-justice process, Brennan said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "A lot of people . . . understand what they're facing, and their lawyers recognize that there is advantage to talking to us in terms of plea agreements, [and] we're going to pursue that." Brennan told CNN's "State of the Union" that other terrorism suspects have "given us very valuable information as they've gone through the plea-agreement process."

Brennan's tour of the talk shows -- he also appeared on ABC's "This Week" -- came as the administration tried to counter, and move out in front of, widespread criticism of intelligence systems that did not identify Abdulmutallab as an al-Qaeda operative or detect the explosive he was allegedly carrying before he boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253.

Much of the criticism Sunday, however, centered on the decision to try him in civilian court rather than hold him as a military prisoner. "If we had treated this Christmas Day bomber as a terrorist, he would have immediately been interrogated military-style, rather than given the rights of an American and lawyers," Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said on CNN. "We probably lost valuable information."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said it was a "very serious mistake" to send Abdulmutallab to federal court.

"He was trained, equipped and directed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," Lieberman said on ABC. "That was an act of war. He should be treated as a prisoner of war, held in a military brig, questioned now, and should have been ever since apprehended for intelligence that could help us stop the next attack or get people in Yemen."

Lieberman and others questioned the administration's ongoing plans to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and transfer or release about 200 remaining inmates there.

"If we don't stop the practice of releasing Guantanamo detainees to Yemen or to other countries . . . we're asking for even more trouble," said Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), the senior Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which has said it will begin hearings on the Christmas incident on Jan. 21. "I think there ought to be an immediate halt put to releases from Guantanamo."

Brennan called Guantanamo Bay "a propaganda tool for al-Qaeda" and countered that 532 Guantanamo detainees had been released by the Bush administration, including some who have subsequently appeared as senior officials in the al-Qaeda organization in Yemen. He said Obama has released 42, including seven Yemenis sent home.

In many ways, Obama was left with only the most difficult cases, however, and the administration has struggled with what to do with them. Plans to try some of the most prominent prisoners in federal court, while putting others before military tribunals, and transferring some to a high-security prison in Illinois have all come under challenge.

Abdulmutallab, who the administration charges was trained for and tasked with the bombing mission by al-Qaeda forces in Yemen, is being held in a federal facility in Milan, Mich. He is due to appear in federal court Friday.

On Sunday, the United States and Britain closed their embassies in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, in response to what Brennan said was a "live threat" by al-Qaeda. "There are indications that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is targeting our embassy and targeting our personnel," he said.

Answering Republican criticism that Obama had not taken the threat seriously enough, Brennan said that Yemen was not a "new front" in counterterrorism efforts and that he had visited the country twice in recent months.

He said that "the United States is providing a range of support that includes security, intelligence and military support to the Yemeni government," including in two air assaults last month against al-Qaeda targets there.

He defended Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, whom some Republicans have suggested ought to be fired. "I think we're very fortunate to have people of the caliber" of Napolitano and Blair, Brennan said.

Referring to Abdulmutallab, he said that "we're concerned that they may be, in fact, trying to get other operatives" to carry out missions similar to the botched airline bombing, in which the explosive Abdulmutallab allegedly had sewn into his underwear did not detonate. "We are doing everything possible to scour all the intelligence . . . to see whether or not there's another Abdulmutallab out there."

Among the lapses he said occurred in the Abdulmutallab case, Brennan revealed that at least part of the suspect's name had appeared in intelligence reports indicating that a Nigerian was being prepared for a terrorist attack by the al-Qaeda group in Yemen.

"We did have the information throughout the course of the summer and fall about . . . plans to carry out attacks," he said. "We had snippets of information, we had information about Umar Farouk, but we didn't have any type of information that really allowed us to identify Mr. Abdulmutallab."

Brennan added: "We may have had a partial name. We might have had an indication of a Nigerian. But there was nothing that brought it all together."

Officials said previously that although intelligence intercepts beginning last summer referred to an upcoming al-Qaeda operation and a Nigerian, Abdulmutallab's name did not appear in any U.S. intelligence database until his father, a prominent banker, reported concerns about his son's associations in Yemen and disappearance there in mid-November.

In a statement posted Sunday on its Web site, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula referred to the "operation of Brother Umar Farouk the Nigerian," describing him as a "rich young man" whose Islamic beliefs led him to undertake a bombing mission that ended in a "technical failure." The statement called for "every Muslim" to kill "every cross-worshiper who works at the embassies."

Brennan, who worked for the CIA for 25 years, said that "clearly, the system didn't work" in identifying Abdulmutallab. But "there is no smoking gun piece of intelligence out there that said he was a terrorist, he was going to carry out this attack against this aircraft," he said. "We had bits and pieces of information."

Abdulmutallab's father "said he was consorting with extremists in Yemen," Brennan added. ". . . He was concerned about him, he wanted our help. That was one set of data. We had, though, other data within the intelligence system . . . that didn't give us the clarity we needed to be able to map it and attach it to Abdulmutallab."

Obama returns to Washington early Monday after a 10-day vacation in Hawaii and is to convene a meeting of his top national security and intelligence officials on Tuesday. He has said he will make whatever systemic changes are needed and will hold accountable those responsible for what he has called "human" failures.

Brennan also made the sharpest rebuttal to date to former vice president Richard B. Cheney's charge last week that the administration is insufficiently aggressive against terrorism and does not appreciate that the nation is at war.

"Either the vice president is willfully mischaracterizing this president's position, both in terms of the language he uses and the actions he's taken," Brennan said, "or he's ignorant of the facts."

He also acknowledged that the failure to capture al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, said to be in Pakistan, "is something that has bedeviled this government for many, many years." Eventually, Brennan said, "we're going to get him. . . . Every day we get one day closer, and hopefully it's going to be very soon."

Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.

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